A group of biodiversity experts called on their colleagues yesterday to figure out how to best use satellite data from space agencies to track changes in the environment like species occurrence, fires and leaf cover.

“The potential has been untapped for the moment,” said Nathalie Pettorelli, a conservation biologist with the Zoological Society of London and one of 14 authors from around the world who published a letter in the journal Nature. “We know all the tools are there. If we could agree on what we should really monitor, we could make sure space agencies make it a priority to have that on the long term.”

Satellites are increasingly able to capture better information on ecosystems using different types of sensors. Active sensors, which emit signals and interpret what bounces back, can paint 3D pictures of what’s happening on the ground, including measures like canopy height. Spectrometers can detect the biochemistry fingerprint of each type of plant. Imagery technology has progressed to the point where individual tree or animal species, like whales or buffalo, can be identified. Governments are increasingly making their data public. In the United States, images from the Landsat satellite program became free in 2008.

People monitoring biodiversity can now use data on a global scale, while before, most work was done on one species at a time. But they haven’t done so, not on a large scale or in a standardized way. The group of authors placed some blame on poor communication between the remote sensing and satellite world on one hand and the conservation world on the other hand. Limited access, uncertainties about the continuity of observations and divergence between the two fields has also halted the merger.

“There is a difference between the data collected from those satellites and the products useful to conservation,” Pettorelli said.

Making ecology a ‘big data science’
Tracking biodiversity requires converting raw data into measures policymakers can use to prevent further loss, and that hasn’t been an easy task for data from satellites. For example, forest extent is relatively easily measured, but there isn’t a strong consensus about how to translate those strict metrics into a measure of forest degradation.

Currently, most of the standards for collecting satellite data relate to weather and climate. Climate scientists went through a similar process of pushing for more satellite analysis around a decade ago. Now, climate models consider a list of around 50 essential climate variables, like air and sea surface temperature, snow cover or ocean acidity, that help streamline the gathering and sharing of useful data.

The letter’s authors hoped to start a similar process in the ecology world.

“Ecology needs to step up and become a big data science,” said Woody Turner, who manages the biodiversity and ecological forecasting programs at NASA and co-authored the letter. “That takes bringing communities together, those that are doing fundamental macroecology and biological work with the tools of what has largely been a geophysical community.”

He points to the upcoming United States earth science decadal survey, which lays out 10-year priorities for NASA and other agencies, as a key opportunity for ecologists to make their particular needs for data known.

“Ecologists need to be much more a part of that cross-science conversation,” he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500